The war has retreated from Kharkiv, but fighting is underway not far away – about 15-20 kilometers from the city.
It's morning. A journalist and photographer from NV are drinking coffee in a Kharkiv coffee shop. It's quiet and sunny outside. Even though shelling cane be heard in Kharkiv almost every night, the city is trying to return to normal life. Public transport has started working again, the number of cars on the roads has increased.
The situation was much worse more than a month ago: the enemy was nearby, constantly terrorizing the city with shelling. But the Ukrainian military managed to oust the Russians closer to the border of their country, which allowed Kharkiv to breathe a little.
But the atmosphere is completely different some 15-20 kilometers to the north: there is no illusion of peace – this is a war zone.
NV went there with the fighters of Khartia, a voluntary formation of the territorial community, which performs tasks on the first line along with other military units.
The purpose of the trip is to visit the front-line village of Ruska Lozova, where every second house has been destroyed or damaged by shelling.
The village was occupied by the Russian invaders for two months. It was liberated on April 28. There are very few locals left. They are not to be seen on the streets since it is dangerous to stay outside due to the threat of shelling.
Upon arrival in Ruska Lozova, NV had to run to get to one of the basements. Khartia commander Vsevolod Kozhemiako, the owner of a large agricultural holding and one of the richest Ukrainians, with a fortune of $100 million on the Forbes list, came here with the journalists. He was accompanied by a comrade who brought drones to the Ukrainian fighters.
"Let me hug you!" Dmytro, a 22-year-old Kharkiv volunteer fighter, does not hide his joy while taking the "gifts."
"We need drones with a very good zoom."
The enemy knows the Ukrainian soldiers are using drones to help adjust fire and observe the front, and so it fighting back with electronic warfare systems.
"A small car pulls up, takes out the antenna, turns it on and we can't fly close by the drone anymore as the connection is lost. That's why we need drones with a good zoom," says Dmytro, who was a bookseller before the start of the full-scale war.
On Feb. 24, he first ran to Kharkiv Regional State Administration, assuming that the Russians would storm the building and it would be necessary to defend it. When the enemy fired Kalibr cruise missiles at the building on March 1, Dmytro was nearby, helping people to get to the shelters.
During the next two months, he was the driver of a humanitarian aid vehicle, and then joined Khartia and became familiar with drones, realizing it was important to see where the enemy was located and what he was doing.
"I'm not an infantryman to dig trenches," he says, and immediately adds, "But if necessary, of course, I will dig, without question!"
Tactics of terror
In the dark room of the "headquarters," a fighter known as Sam says that many people used to live in Ruska Lozova. But they were not able to leave it when the Russians came – the invaders did not allow them to.
But after the liberation (of the village), the locals left en masse, because the enemy began to use artillery to level Ruska Lozova to the ground.
"Apparently, they decided to fire all the ammunition they had left at the village. This is a tactic of terror," Sam says.
Now the Russians are 3-5 kilometers from the village.
Ihor, who calls himself "deputy commander of Khartia for operations, training and everything else," says their unit is part of the 127th territorial defense brigade and performs tasks on the front line.
He is an experienced soldier: he fought in 2014. At one point he tried to return to civilian life, got second degree, engaged in farming, even worked for some time as the director of a poultry farm.
But the full-scale war has brought Ihor back to the front lines again.
The deputy commander says they are trying to build the unit according to NATO standards. And despite the fact that most of the fighters are volunteers, the lack of experience even helps to turn them into a coherent structure.
"That’s because they don't put in their two cents, they don't say something like 'I've already fought and I know how to wage war,'" Ihor says with a smile.
He admits that not only Ukrainians have learned to fight during more than 100 days of full-scale war: the enemy is also quickly mastering the art of combat. At first, the Russians' intelligence failed and they made a mistake in assessing the situation in Kharkiv Oblast, expecting that the locals would be happy to meet their army.
Now the enemy has "begun to fight with the people," says Ihor: "They are no longer at war with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but with the country."
In one boat
The name Khartia, by the way, was suggested by the well-known Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, who performs tasks in Ruska Lozova, working with other servicemen.
In another secret room, NV talks with Oleksandr, aka Mekhanik, the commander of a National Guard company and tactical group.
He explains that a defensive battle is currently ongoing in this area to prevent the enemy from breaking through from the villages of Velyki and Mali Prokhody.
"Are they (the Russians) really trying?" NV asks.
"Yes, they're are trying," the company officer replies. "But we're terrifying them with artillery fire. They're doing the same, but they also have aircraft and long-range artillery."
According to him, the enemy's tactics are aimed at destroying the village, everyone and everything left in it, to demoralize the soldiers.
"But they will fail," Mekhanik said. "We’re ready to fight for a long time."
In the corridor, NV meets military doctor Maksym, who has been in service since 2015. He says that most often he has to deal with shrapnel wounds and mine injuries to soldiers, as the artillery war continues.
While the National Guard fighters run from one part of the premises to another, receiving new tasks, Oleh, 28, the company's deputy commander for personnel, says that from the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he was most afraid for conscripts who had been in the service for three-four months and who only had very basic training. Some of them come from Kherson Oblast and have relatives in the occupied territories.
"They come and say: I called home, and Russian rubles are already being introduced there. We have to support them and say: a little more time and everything will change," says Oleh.
The other part of his subordinates includes reservists who took part in the Anti-Terrorist Operation in the Donbas.
During these months, both conscripts and reservists have managed to find a common language and gain combat experience. Oleh admits they are a bit tired, but he is convinced that the occupied villages of Kharkiv Oblast will be liberated soon and Ukrainian soldiers will reach the state border with Russia.
"This is our land. Let them (the Russian military) go to their Mordor," says the deputy commander.
From business to the trenches
NV sets out with Khartia volunteers to inspect new trenches closer to the Russians.
"If you hear a whistle, immediately fall to the ground," Ihor says.
Just as he said this, there was a whistle, shelling began and the new trenches had to be tested in practice – it was there that NV’s correspondents spent the next half hour waiting for calm.
Kozhemiako took NV from these trenches to a safe place. But he immediately went back, so we managed to talk to the millionaire only the next day, in Kharkiv.
Kozhemiako, who has been helping soldiers at the front for the ninth year, spoke about the intricacies of creating a voluntary formation for a territorial community. Volunteers have the same social guarantees from the state in the case of injury or death, they are combatants, but do not receive salaries from the budget. Therefore, the entrepreneur, together with other businessmen and friends provide the unit with everything it needs at their own expense.
"Business is a self-sufficient structure, and a military organization is a part of an even larger military organization. It imposes certain obligations and responsibilities," Kozhemiako says, explaining the difference between military affairs and business practices.
"The commander is responsible for the lives and health of subordinates. Accordingly, management tools are tougher and more decisive than in business, because the responsibility is greater."
"You have an alternative to living without war, millions in wealth. Why do you go under fire, jump into trenches and risk your life?" NV asks.
In response, Kozhemiako replies: "The alternative to living without war is for a while, but there is still an alternative to living without a homeland. When I was returning from Europe to Ukraine (he was in Austria on Feb. 24 and returned on Feb. 25) and the Russians were attacking Kharkiv, all I thought about was that they wouldn't have time to capture the city. And that if we give in and leave, I will never get home."
"Today is the 105th day of the war. Aren't you tired? This may take a very long time," NV says.
"Time flies fast here. You don't have time to get tired," explains Kozhemiako.
"Seriously, I knew from the very beginning that it would take a long time. You say '105 days of war,' and I think it's eight years and 105 days. War is a marathon, not a sprint. I always ran marathons. Of course, people get tired, take days off and come back. Defending the homeland is not an act of heroism, it's a daily job."
At this point, NV says goodbye to the businessman and returns to Kyiv. And Komezhiako returns to his new "daily job."